catching up

Which Comics Should You Read Before Seeing The Dark Knight Rises?

Despite running nearly three hours, Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, leaves a lot out. And if you’re having trouble understanding what the heavily masked Bane is saying, you might be left mystified. There’s a solution for this, though: You can read the original comics from which the film is derived. The movie’s writers — director Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and longtime Bat-fan David Goyer — have plucked various elements of their picture from some of the many, many comic-book tales. Who are these characters? Why does Selina Kyle want a clean slate? What exactly is it that Bane wants? Why is he in such a freakin’ bad mood? Get thee to the source and bone up. And, as if it needed be said, possible spoilers ahead.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller
Like Frank Miller’s Year One (which we’ll get to later), this is not a traditional Batman story, nor does it fit in with Batman continuity. In this tale, Bruce Wayne/Batman has retired and has been off the streets for ten years. In The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale’s version has also been retired, for about eight years. Both have adjusted to the concept of a post-Batman Gotham, and both then come face-to-face with a chaotic development that jars them out of retirement, perhaps before the doctor would have ordered. Despite having wrecked knees, scar tissue on his kidneys, and concussive brain damage, Bale’s Batman thinks he’s ready to fight. Same with Miller’s guy, who is substantially older, yet believes he’s up for a younger man’s challenge: “This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move.” Neither can handle his situation alone — especially when nuclear threats are involved.

Batman: No Man’s Land, by Greg Rucka
Gotham has been cut off from the outside world — in The Dark Knight Rises, because of a terrorist; in No Man’s Land, because of a 7.6-level earthquake — but the results are the same. The government has abandoned the city, local police are ineffectual, and the villains are gaining control. Bane’s methods in TDKR are not earthquake-related, but a scene in which he first signals his intentions to the world at a football game shares an eerie seismic similarity, as players run across a field that is cracking and sinking under their feet. Bridges are destroyed, and walking across a frozen river is no means of escape. Although Bruce Wayne/Batman tries to save the city (in the film, by confronting Bane; in the comic, by lobbying the government), his efforts are in vain, and after he disappears for several months, the people of Gotham assume that he’s abandoned them, or is dead.  

Vengeance of Bane, by Chuck Dixon
An isolated prison where a child is born and raised figures in both The Dark Knight Rises and the Bane origin story Vengeance of Bane. Growing up in general population taught him some hard lessons. When the young Bane began killing grown men, a warden declared, ” He is a bane to everything holy!” and sent him to solitary for ten years. When Bane emerged, he learned to read and demonstrated some genius abilities — and when he heard about Batman, he became obsessed with destroying the Caped Crusader. Prison officials tested a super-steroid on Bane called Venom, which made him even stronger (and which explains his mask). In TDKR, that mask now pumps a less-exotic painkiller, and Christian Bale finds himself sent to the same prison where Bane started out — a hellish pit that unpleasantly resembles the well Bruce Wayne fell into as a child.

Knightfall, by Chuck Dixon
Bane has been obsessed with Batman for years and has finally deduced his true identity. His attack on both Bruce and the Bat leads to a back-breaking confrontation. This is the crux of Knightfall, which Rises co-writer David Goyer told Vulture is the key Batman story for the new film. Bane has a plan that in some ways makes little sense — why orchestrate a mass breakout of criminals (in the comic, from Arkham Asylum; in the film, from the Gotham prison) if you’re planning to kill everyone in the city anyway? The scene in the comic in which Bane cracks Batman over his knee, leaving him paralyzed, is legendary: “I am Bane,” he tells him. “And I could kill you. But death would only end your agony — and silence your shame. Instead, I will simply BREAK YOU.” Luckily for the comic-book Batman, he gets a personal physician and modern hospital equipment to use for his recuperation; in the film, his ICU is more primitive. In both tales, Bane attempts to forge an alliance with Catwoman.

Batman: Legacy and Bane of the Demon, by Chuck Dixon
These comics incorporate more of Bane’s connection to the League of Assassins (called the League of Shadows in the films), Ra’s al Ghul, and Talia al Ghul. In Bane of the Demon, Bane and Talia have a love story of sorts, or at least, a sex story. Nevertheless, she calls Bane “a brute. A beast with the mind and heart of a child.” She also hurtfully informs him that she’d rather mate with Batman, and she asks her father to kill Bane for touching her — talk about rejection! Legacy is the follow-up to Knightfall and a precursor to No Man’s Land, and reveals more of the working relationships and alliances between Catwoman, Batman, Bane, and Talia.

Batman, Incorporated, by Grant Morrison
The celebrated Morrison reveals that Bane isn’t the only man with whom Talia al Ghul has a complicated relationship. As her origin story in the August issue of the ongoing Batman, Incorporated reveals, she’s also got major daddy issues, which she projects onto the mastermind he most resembles — Batman. Although Talia and Batman’s pairing is practically an arranged marriage in the comics — and produces a son named Damian — Talia still can’t make peace with the main men in her life. She tells Ra’s, “You maneuvered me into a one-sided love affair with that cold, driven man. And not because you cared about my happiness.” And she stops at nothing — nothing! — to wound her caped mate: “And now Damian, our son, is dead. Killed … by my order.”

Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and Catwoman: When in Rome, by Jeph Loeb
Selina Kyle wants to start her complicated life over with a clean slate in The Dark Knight Rises. She has a substantial rap sheet — although Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s detective doesn’t actually tell us what’s on it. Could it be her years as a prostitute, as in Frank Miller’s version? (It’s only later that she becomes a thief.) Or could it be her mafia heritage, which she looks into while on a trip to Italy in When in Rome? She believes — but can’t prove — that Carmine “the Roman” Falcone, Gotham’s former crime boss, is her father; she targets him for thefts, and even disfigures him. As Catwoman, she questions Don Fillipe Verinni, the Boss of Bosses in Southern Italy, but then he’s killed shortly after she arrives, and she’s assumed to be the assassin. “You don’t know a thing about me,” Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman says in the movie. But comics fans do.

Catwoman: Trail of the Catwoman, by Ed Brubaker
The Selina Kyle/Catwoman we meet in The Dark Knight Rises has a partner in crime played by Juno Temple — Holly Robinson in the comics. Ed Brubaker gives us a few stories about how Holly brings out Selina’s savior complex. In Anodyne, Holly alerts Selina about a serial killer preying on prostitutes: “Someone’s killing us out there.” And in Trickle Down Theory, Holly fills her friend in on a scheme in which local neighborhood boys are being used as international drug mules — and that one of the dealers is a cop. 

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, by Neil Gaiman
We’re honestly not giving away anything about the end of The Dark Knight Rises, but we have to point out that Batman has died many times in the comics — most memorably, perhaps, in Neil Gaiman’s two-parter. Catwoman, Superman, Two-Face, Jim Gordon, and all of the hooded avenger’s other friends and foes turn up to either claim or dispute responsibility for letting him die, to reveal their true identities (Alfred as the Joker?), and, of course, much else. As Bruce Wayne puts it in a faltering moment: “The end of the story of Batman is, he’s dead, because in the end, the Batman dies. What else am I going to do? Retire and play golf?” Please banish that thought.

Which Comics to Read Before Dark Knight Rises